Biden echoes Obama as White House releases photo of briefing on strike

Picture bore striking similarities to 1 May 2011 image, when US special forces killed Osama bin Laden

The White House on Tuesday released a picture of Joe Biden being briefed on the CIA drone strike which killed Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaida and a chief planner of the 9/11 attacks, in Kabul last weekend.

The move came amid widespread celebration of the killing in the US and the apparently successful attack provides a welcome fillip to Biden, whose popularity has plunged during 2022 as the nation gears up for the crucial midterm election in November.

The picture bore striking similarities to a famous image from 1 May 2011, when US special forces raided a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan and killed Osama bin Laden. That picture showed Biden, then vice-president, among advisers to Barack Obama.

After that strike, Obama said the US had killed “the leader of al-Qaida, a terrorist responsible for the murder of thousands of innocent men, women, and children”.

On Monday night, speaking from a White House balcony, Biden echoed Obama.

“Justice has been delivered and this terrorist leader is no more,” he said. “People around the world no longer need to fear the vicious and determined killer.”

In his own statement on Zawahiri’s death, Obama paid “tribute to President Biden’s leadership, to the members of the intelligence community who have been working for decades for this moment, and to the counter-terrorism professionals who were able to take Zawahiri out without a single civilian casualty”.

It’s a tribute to President Biden’s leadership, to the members of the intelligence community who have been working for decades for this moment, and to the counterterrorism professionals who were able to take al-Zawahiri out without a single civilian casualty.

— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) August 2, 2022

Bin Laden’s body was disposed of at sea. On Tuesday the White House national security spokesman, John Kirby, told CNN the US had “visual confirmation” Zawahiri was dead. “We do not have DNA confirmation,” Kirby said. “We’re not going to get that confirmation. Quite frankly, based on multiple sources and methods … we don’t need it.”

Obama also heralded “proof that it’s possible to root out terrorism without being at war in Afghanistan”.

US troops invaded in October 2001, a month after the attacks that Zawahiri helped plan killed 2,977 in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.

Twenty years later, Biden oversaw the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, a messy and costly process for which he was pilloried by Republicans at home.

Senior Republicans also celebrated the Zawahiri strike.

Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, said: “The world is a better, safer place … I am profoundly grateful to the intelligence and counter-terrorism professionals who spent decades hunting this terrorist killer. President Biden deserves credit for approving this strike.”

Liz Cheney, the Wyoming anti-Trump Republican whose father is Dick Cheney, vice-president to George W Bush and an architect of the wars after 9/11, said: “I commend the Biden administration for taking this decisive action and proactively using America’s strength to defend our interests.”

Both said Zawahiri’s presence in Kabul, under the Taliban government, showed the US had been wrong to withdraw.

Biden said the US would “never again allow Afghanistan to become a terrorist safe haven because [Zawahiri] is gone and we’re going to make sure that nothing else happens”.

Reporting has shown that amid the chaotic US withdrawal in August 2021, a US drone strike on a suspected terrorist target killed 10 civilians, seven of them children. On Monday, White House officials who spoke to reporters stressed that the Zawahiri strike was extremely carefully planned.

At the 1 July meeting briefing Biden on the attack, the White House said Biden was “shown a model of the safe house where al-Zawahiri was hiding” in Afghanistan. One official said Biden “examined closely the model of Zawahiri’s house that the intelligence community had built and brought into the White House situation room for briefings on this issue”.

Officials said engineers analysed the house in which Zawahiri was hiding and what would happen after a strike, and that lawyers said the attack was legal. Loss of life was limited to Zawahiri alone, officials said.

Biden approved the mission on 25 July. It was a decision in contrast to advice he gave Obama in May 2011 not to proceed with the mission against Bin Laden.

A photo taken on 1 May 2011 shows Barack Obama, Joe Biden and aides as they receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House.
A photo taken on 1 May 2011 shows Barack Obama, Joe Biden and aides as they receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House. Photograph: Pete Souza/The White House/AFP/Getty Images

In Washington on Tuesday, many pondered whether the Zawahiri strike might boost Biden at home. Beset by domestic and international challenges, the president has seen his favorability rating plummet and polls showing majorities of Americans saying he should not run for re-election in two years’ time.

In a statement, relatives of those killed on 11 September 2001 expressed gratitude for the strike but expressed a desire to see Saudi Arabia held to account for its alleged role in the 9/11 attacks.

Terry Strada, national chair of 9/11 Families United, said: “In order to achieve full accountability for the murders of thousands on September 11, 2001, President Biden must also hold the Saudi paymasters accountable for killing our loved ones.”

Referring to a trip to Saudi Arabia last month during which Biden greeted Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and the debut of a Saudi-backed golf tour at Donald Trump’s course in New Jersey, Strada said: “The financiers are not being targeted by drones, they are being met with fist bumps and hosted at golf clubs. If we’re going to be serious about accountability, we must hold everyone accountable.”

Many warned that the death of Zawahiri did not mean al-Qaida was no longer a threat.

Christopher Harnisch, a former state department counter-terrorism coordinator now at the Atlantic Council thinktank, said: “Counter-terrorism practitioners know all too well that the elimination of one man will not eliminate the threat in its entirety.”


Martin Pengelly, Ed Pilkington and Gloria Oladipo in New York

The GuardianTramp

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